The First Captive Killer Whales - A Changing Attitude

The attitude towards killer whales finally begain to change when whales were first captured for oceaniums and we began to learn about killer whales as individuals.

The first killer whale capture was in 1961 by Marineland of the Pacific in California. They captured a sick, disoriented mature female in Newport Harbor, California. Two days after the introduction into her tank, she smashed her rostrum head-on into the tanks' wall and died.

The next captive killer whale was in 1964. This did not start out as a live capture, but eventually ended up as the first whale to be kept in captivity for a period of time. A sculptor by the name of Samuel Burich was commissioned in 1964 by the Vancouver Aquarium to go out and kill a killer whale and fashion a life-sized model of it for the aquariums' new British Columbia hall. Burich harpooned a 15-foot long, 1-ton whale near East Point, Saturna Island in British Columbia. When the whale did not die immediately, even after being shot, the aquarium director, Murray Newman, decided to keep the killer whale alive and tow the whale back to Vancouver, British Columbia - a 20-mile journey. He used the harpoon line attached to the base of the whales dorsal fin as the tow line. The harpooned whale that was towed to Vancouver was named Moby Doll (although later they found out it was male). People were surprised by Moby Dolls docility. Moby Doll was kept in captivity for 87 days until he died from a skin disease caused by the harbors' low salinity water.

For the first time, newspapers and magazines including Reader's Digest, Life, The Times of London, and the Victoria Times gave some positive press about killer whales. Moby Doll's captivity started a new era for killer whales.

Killer whale captures for exhibition purposes began in the Northwest in 1965. The second capture in the Northwest was an accidental catch of a 24-foot long, 5-ton male who got snared in a fishing net off Namu, British Columbia. The two fishermen who owned the net decided to sell him alive to the first person who gave them a bid.

Ted Griffin, owner of the Seattle Public Aquarium, had dreamed for many years of befriending a killer whale. Killer whales are the largest of the dolphin family, and he was convinced that such a relationship was possible. When Griffin heard of the captured killer whale, he jumped at the opportunity and bought the whale for 8,000 dollars, the cost of replacing the net. He named the whale Namu, after the town if its capture.

The main problem was how to transport Namu 450 miles from Namu B.C. to Seattle, Washington. He solved this problem by building a 60 foot by 40 foot by 16 foot deep floating pen that could be towed by boat to Seattle. The journey southward started in July 1965. When Namu was being towed southward he emitted various scream-like sounds and on the 4th day of the trip, 30-40 killer whales overtook the floating pen and seemingly tried to help Namu. They repeatedly charged the cage, but warned by their built-in sonar they stopped just short of hitting it. After several hours, most of the killer whales disappeared, all except a female and two calves. These three whales were probably Namu's mother and siblings, and they stayed with Namu for 150 miles.

Namu was an instant success when he arrived on July 28 1965, in Rich Cove, 12 miles west of Seattle WA. Namu's first Sunday at Rich Cove attracted 5,000 people, and by September the number of people who visited Namu exceeded 120,000. They all came to see the 'killer turned tame'.

Griffin wanted to dispel the notion that killer whales are blood thirsty predators whose only desire is to kill. Griffin knew that in order to prove this attitude wrong, he had to meet Namu on his own terms and in his own environment. Griffin decided that to demonstrate the friendliness of Namu, he had to swim with him. When people heard of Griffin's plan to swim with Namu, they told him that 'swimming with a killer whale is like risking death'.

Before attempting the first swim ever with a wild killer whale, Griffin observed Namu's every move, studied his behavior, and noted his moods. Griffin reasoned that fear would not be a cause for aggression, since killer whales have no natural enemies in the wild. Namu should instead regard Griffin with curiosity.

Griffin first entered the water with Namu on August 27 1965, just one month after Namu arrived at Rich Cove. Griffin approached Namu with a short handled brush. Namu did not move, so Griffin scrubbed Namu's head, nose and chin. Later in the day Griffin slid onto Namu's back and from that day on Griffin and Namu became inseparable. Griffin commented on his relationshop with Namu:

"It was as if my every conscious wish became the whales command."

Namu and Griffin performed together for 11 months until Namu contracted a bacterial infection which damaged his nervous system. A few days before his death he became unresponsive to people and on June Namu crashed head-on at full speed into the wire mesh of his pen, thrashed violently for a few minutes and then died.

Griffin had become so enthralled by money and fame that despite his experience with Namu's intelligent and friendly nature he still decided to capture more killer whales for oceaniums. In 1965 he began a partnership with Dan Goldsberry to capture even more killer whales from the Pacific Northwest.

Griffin, Goldsberry, and others captured killer whales in the waters around Washington and British Columbia from November 1965 until August 1977. They seine netted the killer whales 19 different times and captured a total of around 262 whales. From those captured, they removed 50 juveniles. Weaned juveniles were targeted because they posed less risk during transportation and they still possessed the mental flexibility to adapt to a captive situation. Five other killer whales were removed from the population either because they were accidentally caught in nets or they had stranded. At least 11 killer whales died during the capture process, mostly by drowning in nets.The other killer whales were either released or they escaped. Sixteen of the whales in captivity died their first year.(See 'Orca - The Whale called Killer, by Erich Hoyt).

The captors aimed for weaned juveniles because they posed less risk during transportation and they still posessed the mental flexibility to adapt to a captive situation. This has resulted in the absence of an entire generation of killer whales in the Pacific Northwest.

Public and scientific concern arose because of the captures. People wanted restrictions to be introduced if killer whales were to be continually taken. It was unknown exactly how many whales were present in the population during the capture period. The assumption of the captors was that there were 100's or 1000's of killer whales in these waters. This number was based on the assumption that killere whales were evenly distributed over the entire Pacific Ocean. Because of this concern, Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans contracted a marine biologist, Dr. Mike Bigg, to do a population census of killer whales in the waters around British Columbia. Some of the most fundamental questions that needed to be answered were:

What are the total number of killer whales inhabiting these waters.

Are these whales a discrete local population or are these killer whales just a few of the 1000's of killer whales inhabiting the entire Pacific Ocean that occasionally wander into these waters.

Are the killer whales taken in Washington State waters from the same stock as those taken in British Columbia.

To answer these questions Dr. Bigg in 1971 organized a public sighting program to assess the number of orcas and their locations by sending out questionnaires to lighthouses, ferries, fishery patrol boats, tugs, fishermen, and other individuals who lived and worked along the coast of British Columbia. From 500 or so returns per year, it was estimated that the population in British Columbia was roughly 200-300 Killer whales. This number was much lower than the many hundreds and even thousands of killer whales that the captors thought were present.

In 1973, Mide Bigg proposed the use of photographs to obtain on accurate account of the killer whales in local waters. This method involved taking photo graphs of each killer whales' dorsal fin and saddle patch. He said that these two parts of killer whales are as distinctive as human finger prints. Dr. Bigg also argued that this method of photo-identification would provide insight into many other features of their natural history. He bagan assigning identities to the whales in the following manner. Each pod he encountered was given a letter starting with "A" for the first pod. Within each pod, each individual also received a number.

Many scientists were sceptical about whether this new method would work. To prove this new field technique, Dr. Bigg captured a young male killer whale in Pedder Bay near Victoria in 1973. This young killer whale (K-1) was radio tagged and at the sametime two nicks were cut out from the top third of this dorsal fin for easy identification. Dr. Bigg wanted to prove that injuries involving tissue loss are permanent. (K-1 had been photographed in 1997 and these knicks had remained unchanged. Sadly this popular, charismatic male hasn't been seen since 1997 and is therefore presumed to be dead.)

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